Washington at 49ers: Getting It Done, Sorta…

408234_1280x720AP Photo

The 49ers won a slow, frustrating game against an inferior Washington team on Sunday, the latest in a series of defense-first, nail-biting comeback wins. They survived numerous mistakes and failed to build on a strong start to the game. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Pass Defense

Once again, the 49ers won because of their pass defense, which held Washington to just 77 yards through the air. Credit goes to the pass rush, which swallowed up Robert Griffin III, and the secondary, which blanketed star wideout DeSean Jackson all day. Rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson had an excellent day, adding his name to the growing list of rookies shoring up the 49ers’ battered defense.

Anquan Boldin

Q had one of his best games as a 49er, picking up 137 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He manhandled Washington’s secondary; his only mistake coming in the 3rd quarter when his route was jostled by Baushaud Breland, leading to a pick. Q has been one of the most entertaining 49ers for two years running. His reliability in 3rd and long situations has saved so many drives, it’s frankly amazing he isn’t doubled or tripled every time.

The Bad Things

Offense

It was a horrible day for the offense, who barely managed 17 points against one of the worst defensive units in the league. They only picked up 66 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. There were numerous drops, a botched snap and other mistakes, making it like basically every other 49ers game this season.

Counterpoint: The 49ers had to contend with horrible field position all game, thanks to Washington’s punter and Perrish Cox’s mediocrity as a return man. They also turned over the ball three times, two of which were fumbles, and managed to survive. They lost their other two multiple turnover games of the season, the 49ers (The Bears in week two and the Rams in week nine), so credit to this team for overcoming their mistakes. That said, it would be nice to see them get in some kind of rhythm.

Vernon Davis

Davis continues to play well below our expectations, depriving the team of their favorite home run hitter. He had an ugly drop and twice ran a too-short route on 3rd down. Whether it be age, focus or just an unfortunate string of bad luck, Davis has been mostly useless in the pass game. As the 49ers gear up for a playoff push, his speed will be sorely missed.

Run Defense

The 49ers’ run defense has regressed since losing Ian Williams, and even Chris Borland playing out of his mind hasn’t stopped teams from running over the 49ers. They gave up 136 yards on Sunday, the same amount they gave up to the Saints two weeks ago. They won both contests, but given that neither team is necessarily great at running the ball, this is a worrying trend. Hopefully Glenn Dorsey can help them plug the gaps, but until he returns, they will have to rely on Quinton Dial and Tony Jerrod-Eddie at nose tackle.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

It was another so-so day for Kaep, who did an excellent job handling Washington’s blitz packages but also had some ugly overthrows. His pass to Boldin at the end of the 4th quarter was incredible, but was eclipsed by Boldin’s tough yards after the catch. I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Kaep will ever truly ‘take over’ a game like he did last season. With the offense sputtering and failing as frequently as it does, Kaep has done a good job of making plays when they count. However, his play has been more ‘proficient’ than ‘spectacular’. Here’s to hoping he puts on a show for the home crowd on Thanksgiving.

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49ers Draft Needs

 

trentmurphyCarlos Avila Gonzalez

The NFL’s most overhyped program, at least until the upcoming 49ers-Seahawks game on Thanksgiving, is nearly upon us. This year’s draft has been praised as one of the deepest, one of the strongest and most complex, but don’t be fooled. Draft day will be just as entertaining as the last few years, which is to say, not very. Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of a 49ers fan. Despite not being able to win a sixth championship in the last few years, the 49ers are still in pretty good shape, and will be for a while. They once again have a boatload of picks (11, all told). Here are the 49ers’ draft needs, in no particular order:

Center

With Jonathan Goodwin a free agent, the 49ers will be looking for a center in the middle to late rounds. Daniel Kilgore is the heir apparent, but Baalke likes to stock the roster with multiple options and figure out the depth chart in training camp. USC’s Marcus Martin is the most prominent candidate, but there are lots of options for interior linemen in the 3rd and 4th rounds.

Pass Rusher

The 49ers benefited from having a lot of depth along the defensive line last season. Having players like Corey Lemonier, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie allowed them to rest starters and ensure that injuries or absences didn’t leave the 49ers’ front seven in the lurch. Tank Carradine will debut in 2014, but it couldn’t hurt the 49ers to pick up even more depth. I am pretty high on Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy, who tore up the Pac-12 last year and could be developed into a lethal pass rusher. The 49ers have also been connected with Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Auburn defensive end Dee Ford.

Quarterback

The 49ers traded for Jacksonville signal caller Blaine Gabbert, but will no doubt be looking for another one in the draft. There are some intriguing mid-round options, including LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, San Jose State’s David Fales and Virgina Tech’s Logan Thomas. David Fales would be a great backup option, and could learn a lot from Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert and Harbaugh. All that said, I wish the 49ers would just bring back B.J. Daniels

Cornerback

The 49ers resigned Eric Wright and picked up Vikings corner Chris Cook, but lost some major players in Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown. I had initially thought the 49ers would look wide receiver in the first round, but Chris Culliver decided to play Grand Theft Auto V in real life and will most likely miss some time next season. This leaves the team in a tough spot, depth-wise. Fortunately, this draft has some excellent options at corner. If the 49ers do decide to trade up in the first round, it will most likely be to grab one of the premier cornerbacks like Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. I could also see them going to the second round and picking up TCU’s Jason Verrett or VT’s Kyle Fuller.

Wide Receiver

If the 49ers do decide to be aggressive in the first round, I hope they trade up to get a wide receiver. Provided everyone stays healthy, they will be in a position to add to a receiver group that has been lacking the last couple of years. Kaepernick needs weapons, and he seemed impressed with FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin. I like Benjamin a lot, as he could be the red zone threat the 49ers have been lacking and could learn a lot under Anquan Boldin. The 49ers could also look for more sure-handed receivers, like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Indiana’s Cody Latimer.

I fully expect Baalke to trade away some picks in order to add to later drafts as well. The 49ers used all of their 13 picks last year, and do not need to ‘stock up’ on training camp bodies as much as other teams. Although it doesn’t make the actual draft process more interesting, there is a lot of talent this year and some great possibilities for the 49ers to improve, particularly on offense. We can only hope that Harbaalke stays smart and works some more draft day magic.

 

Evaluating the 49ers’ Hot Streak

gorehawks3AP Photo/ John Froschauer)

The 49ers will attempt to pick up their ninth win in a row on Sunday. I was tired of hearing about this game before the season even started; this matchup has been beaten to death by the ranks of sports punditry. As such, I have limited my consumption of 49ers-related information this week. Even so, the pro-49ers narrative has filtered through. Bloggers, pundits and fans seem more confident about this game than I expected. The 49ers’ last two trips to Seattle saw them totally discombobulated. They were two uncharacteristically bad games that showcased some of the worst tendencies of the current incarnation of the 49ers.

The narrative follows a basic logic, namely that the 49ers are hot and the Seahawks are cooling off. The 49ers have been playing their most consistent football of the season. All three phases of the game have been solid, if not excellent, for the last eight games. The offense hasn’t been spectacular, but the team has limited turnovers and controlled the game. Colin Kaepernick has been highly efficient, tossing 12 touchdowns against 2 interceptions over the last eight games for a QBR average of 102.14. However, he played a mediocre game against Seattle at home, where he completed just over half of his passes with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.

The story of the Seahawks’ lack of recent success centers on the offense. The defense has been just as good as it was in week 2, forcing a staggering 19 turnovers in the last eight games and generally stymying elite offenses. However, the Seahawks offense has been hard pressed to keep up with this defensive production. After an early to midseason hot streak, Russell Wilson has been underwhelming, tossing 4 touchdowns against 3 interceptions in the last five games for an average QBR of 77.5. These offensive struggles hurt Seattle against Arizona, when the defense forced 4 turnovers, but the offense managed just 192 yards in the 10-17 loss. All that said, the Seahawks have still gone 3-2, and have proven that they can rely on their defense and run game to win. Wilson has played well and poorly against the 49ers in the past; counting on him to struggle on Sunday isn’t a strategy that I find reassuring.

I like the way the 49ers are playing. Greg Roman has simplified the game plan and shown a better balance between the pass and run, allowing the offense to do what it does best. The defense has also proven capable of withstanding the pressure of the playoffs, helped a great deal by their depth and the unsung heroics of players like Tramaine Brock, Tony Jerrod-Eddie and Dan Skuta. However, they will need to play on another level if they want to get back to the Super Bowl. They faced down one of the best defenses in the NFL on the road in Carolina and managed to get enough done to win, but the Seahawks are better, particularity at home. The 49ers are playing winning football, but I won’t believe that their hot streak puts them above the Seahawks until I see it.

Injuries Remain 2013 49ers’ Biggest Problem

Carlos Avila Gonzalez

Carlos Avila Gonzalez

The 49ers move into week 13 with a very different team than the one that started the season against Green Bay. Although they sit at 8-4, this 49ers team, at least until this point, has felt less impressive than the last two seasons. Every week, bloggers, pundits and reporters uncork new theories on what has brought on the inconsistencies and failures that have led to the 49ers four losses. Poor play calling, lackluster performance from Colin Kaepernick and a run and pass game woefully out of synch with one another have been popular responses, but they all allude to something that began long before the season started: injuries and absences.

In 2011-12, the 49ers enjoyed two largely injury-free seasons, only ruling players out 13 and 16 times, respectively. This season, players have been ruled out of games 68 times. A large chunk of this is due to inert players; players like Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine were not meant to play this season, but take up roster space. Taking those players off the totals, the number is reduced to 32, which is still essentially double what it was the last couple of years. Of these 32, 14 games have been missed by Pro Bowlers, including Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati.

Looking over these numbers, it is interesting to see what has worked thus far for the team, and what has fallen flat. The most questionable position groups after 2012 were wide receivers and the secondary, both of which were hit hard by injury and free agency. Cornerback Chris Culliver was injured before the season started, which, coupled with Dashon Goldson’s departure, left the 49ers pass defense in a tough spot. They turned to Nnamdi Asomugha, who was underwhelming and eventually got injured himself, and Eric Reid, who has been an excellent replacement for Goldson. Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright stepped up in Asomugha’s (and later Tarrell Brown’s) absence, and won starting jobs. This has been the story with the defense thus far; Corey Lemonier was a solid fill-in for Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite did a great job filling in for Willis, Tony Jerrod-Eddie has subbed a limited Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey has filled the gap at nose tackle after Ian Williams’ injury. Most injuries have been ably handled by the 49ers’ defensive depth, allowing Vic Fangio to scheme at will.

The offense has been another story. Mario Manningham and Crabtree were absent to begin the season, and rookie hype-beneficiary Quinton Patton injured his foot during week 4. With Kyle Williams lacking any perceptible receiving talent, wideout depth was reduced to Jonathan Baldwin and Anquan Boldin. However, the most significant offensive injury was Vernon Davis, who left two games early (Seattle and Carolina) and missed play against Indianapolis. The 49ers were outscored in those three games by a combined score of 66-19, lacking both Davis’ abilities as a receiver and his role as a premier run blocker. With rookie Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek as the only backup tight ends, Greg Roman found himself limited in what kind of plans he could draw up against elite defenses.

The 49ers’ shortcomings this season are complex, and no member of the team or coaching staff is above blame. However, the most consistent factor weighing the 49ers down has been injuries and absences. Even players like Justin Smith and Frank Gore, who haven’t missed a game, have been limited in what they can do both in practice and on the field. Injuries can also steal the momentum from games; losing players like Davis and Reid mid-game forces the coaching staff to improvise and changes the flow of play on the field. As players like Manningham, Smith and Crabtree return, their impact will be felt. The most consistent threat to the team this season hasn’t been their NFC West rivals, but the weekly injuries which limit them immensely.

49ers vs. Titans: What to Watch For

oilers

The 49ers begin their roadtrip in Tennessee, where they take on the potentially resurgent Titans. Losing Jake Locker for a few weeks stifled any momentum the Titans developed in week 1, but the defense has kept the team afloat. Locker is back, saving the 49ers the pleasure of facing the Sophoclean tragedy that is Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Titans remind me of the Cardinals; they are a team with plenty of potential but still capable of masterful self-destruction. Fortunately, the style of offense the Niners have used in the last three weeks should match up well with Tennessee’s defense. If they are able to brutalize the Titans’ defensive front, we will have reason to slap hands. What I will be watching for:

Feeding Gore: The Tennessee Titans aren’t great against the run. After facing Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch, they will have to contend with the 49ers’ brutal ground game. That is, of course, so long as Greg Roman calls the right plays. The 49ers faced another bad run defense in the Colts, but Roman called a pass-heavy offense and the Niners turned over the ball twice. Roman seems to have wised up, but against a defense as turnover-happy as the Titans cute play calling will not be tolerated. If the 49ers can impose a presence on the ground early on, they can open up the playbook a bit.

Red Zone Execution: In 55 red zone plays, the 49ers have scored 9 touchdowns, which is just over 16%. Red zone struggles go back a couple of years (13.8% in 2011, 21.1% in 2012), but it isn’t something that can stand going forward. Despite two interceptions putting them in the red zone last week, the 49ers were only able to score 6 points. If the 49ers are able to rattle Jake Locker and force turnovers, they need to be sure that the offense can take advantage.

Pressure: The Titans offensive line is just okay, and they will be starting rookie center Brian Schwenke over Rob Turner. The 49ers will have to generate a lot of pressure and make Locker uncomfortable early on. He is still working through an injury, and pressuring him will limit the Titans’ passing game. Corey Lemonier and Justin Smith have been playing out of their minds, but the rest of the defensive line is banged up. The amount of pressure they bring will be a big difference maker in this game.

Run Defense: The 49ers are facing another elite running back in Chris Johnson, and will need to limit his big play ability. With Ian Williams out and Glenn Dorsey unlikely, San Francisco will have to rely on Tony Jerrod-Eddie and rookie nose tackle Quinton Dial to spearhead their run-stopping power. The running narrative on Chris Johnson is that he is struggling due to age, but he has faced two great defenses in the last two weeks and probably still has plenty left in the tank. Whether or not the Niners can handle Johnson is my biggest concern going into this game.